Watching Matilda as an adult is really shocking when the last time you watched it as a 10 year old. The way fatness and gluttony are treated like mortal sins makes me really sad so many kids had to watch this. I do find it really interesting how conflicted the body of the villain, Miss Trunchbull, is. Not only is she physically strong, which is used as a way to harm the kids at school but also used to devalue her. Ms. Honey is portrayed as a delicate flower who speaks softly and the first kind person Matilda has ever met. Matilda is a great film to show how we teach children fat stigma.Levitt got my wheels turning on this subject. I think it's pretty well known how poorly fat people in the media are portrayed as a whole, but when you take a look at the media children are consuming, it becomes disturbingly clear just how clearly we are teaching fatphobia to our youngest citizens.
I'd like a to take a brief tour of how fat cartoon characters are portrayed to make my point. Most of the examples I have are from my own childhood and reflecting upon that, so forgive the not necessarily current nature of the content.
When I decided to write about this topic, Ursula was the first character that came to my mind. The Little Mermaid came out when I was five and I was in love with it. Ursula was a chilling villain who struck fear into me. She was powerful, cunning, and strong--but most of all fat and evil. The Little Mermaid is often cited as a feminist key criticism against Disney in general. (I mean think about it--Ariel quite literally gives up her voice for a man.) But the portrayal of Ursula could be seen as especially problematic. As D. Carolina Ramos wrote:
Ursula is big, hideous and even has some masculine features. Over and over again the females with strength are inherently evil, and those with beauty triumph over. ...[U]nattractive female characters are directly associated with wickedness and related traits, always representing what the heroine does not. Ursula, the only female with a voice and with power, is killed in the end, while the subjective female, Ariel, lives happily ever after in view of the fact that the voice of a woman matters little in the movie.(And keep in mind that fatness is cultural short hand for unattractive.) So here, we have a powerful, fat woman but she needs to be destroyed because she is so horrible. Not sounding so great, huh? Well just hold on, because Ursula is not alone.
Cartman, South Park
While his thinner counterparts, Kyle and Stan, are most frequently trying to make their messed up community a little better and spouting off pearls of wisdom at the end of the episode, Cartman is engaged in general evilry. (Yay made up words.)
Other characters, less evil but not good
Snacker and her crew
Dances with Fat,
This is a new game at Epcot wherein kids meet their “Heroes” Will Power and Callie Stenics and fight with them against “Enemies” The Glutton, Lead Bottom and Snacker...Disney is supposed to be the happiest place on Earth and now fat kids – who are subjected to a barrage of shaming, humiliating, stigmatizing, and bullying messages from society on a daily basis – will go on vacation and find out that people who look like them are villains who other kids fight for points and bragging rights. Why doesn’t Disney just hold fat kids down and let park guests kick them?It's worth noting that following the online backlash, Disney pulled plans for this attraction indefinitely. That's certainly a victory for those of us who spoke out against the ride, but it unfortunately doesn't change the fact that our society is still teaching fatphobia on a regular basis. No matter which way you slice it, cartoons and marketing for children are clearly sending kids some pretty negative messages about fatness. The idea seems to rest on the acceptance of two faulty premises:
1) There is something inherently wrong with fat bodies and
2) Because of this, we can assume that fat characters will be deeply flawed in other ways as well.
The result is that you don't see many fat cartoon characters filling the hero role or even as just neutral characters. (It's no wonder that when there is a fat hero, fat activists take notice.) When you take a critical eye to the media our kids consume, it's not surprising that fatphobia is so strong in us as a culture. Children are impressionable and they're being sent the message that fat people are at best laughable; at worst evil. And, of course, as Chastian pointed out, messages like this are also teaching fat kids specifically that something is wrong with them...that they're the enemy...that they're not right.
So the next question is what can be done? Of course, the ultimate goal is a society in which the dominant messages being sent to all of us don't create a mental shortcut between fatness and horrible qualities; a society where we don't shame certain body types; a culture where the images we are exposed to represent a wider array of people. However, in the interim, it's really up to parents to ensure that they are having conversations with their kids about the messages they receive. And it's up to all of us to speak out against the fatphobia we see on a daily basis.